Capitol Alert

Praising ‘courage’ and ‘solidarity,’ officials console fire victims

Kamala Harris to Sonoma crowd: 'There are so many courageous people here right now'

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris tells a crowd at a Sonoma fire briefing that the community "has endured so much loss and pain."
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U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris tells a crowd at a Sonoma fire briefing that the community "has endured so much loss and pain."

Fire victims asked about tree removal and evacuation notices.

A man from nearby Coffey Park, worried about looters, wondered when he and his neighbors would be allowed back in.

Others stressed that undocumented immigrants were too scared to ask for help.

California Gov. Jerry Brown, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Sen. Kamala Harris were among the officials who addressed those coping with the Northern California wildfires at a community meeting Saturday at Santa Rosa High School.

Emergency officials provided disaster assistance contact information and ways to apply for help. While some expressed frustration, that angst was not directed at the state’s and region’s elected officials, who were repeatedly greeted with loud applause.

After touring an area where hundreds of homes were destroyed, Brown and Feinstein said the deadly fires sweeping though the wine country and across Northern California are the most horrific the state has experienced in many decades.

“This is truly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, tragedy that California has ever faced,” Brown, in his fourth term as governor, told a reporter.

Feinstein added: “This is about the worst fire of my lifetime. It shows no favoritism. It just moves.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein speaks about the Northern California fires at an event in Santa Rosa on Oct. 15, 2017.

The death toll rose to at least 41, and more than 5,700 structures were reported destroyed. Emergency officials told residents in Sonoma County that they were still working to battles the flames.

Brown called the fatalities and loss of property “horrible.”

“All the resources … (being deployed) it’s a real example of how America pulls together,” he said. “What we are all seeing here is a tremendous expression of solidarity.”

At the community meeting, a woman asked about rental assistance, noting that the fires have scorched so many homes that the region would be bursting at the seams with those in need.

Brown said the state was doing everything it can to manage the fires. The dryness and ability of winds to sweep up quickly make the fire threat a constant, he said. Asked by a reporter if the state would expedite permits to rebuild, Brown said it would.

Another woman who lost her home said she was confused by the original evacuation notices. Within 45 minutes of getting the first call, her community was overcome by the flames.

“The message said ‘be prepared to evacuate … it didn’t say ‘evacuate,’” she said though tears.

Officials from Sonoma County said they were still looking into what happened with the notifications. They said many of the homes that got “be prepared” messages never got full evacuation notices because the fast-moving fire knocked out phone lines before such calls could go out.

Police and state lawmakers took pains to deliver the message that immigrants “are safe here – and loved,” as one fire spokeswoman put it Saturday afternoon.

Before the meeting got started, Feinstein and Harris continued to stress that the danger was not over, and pledged to work in the Senate on disaster relief funding. One program allows individuals to be recompensed up to a total of $32,000, the senators said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein spoke to Northern California fire victims at a community meeting in Santa Rosa on Saturday, October 14, 2017, telling them that federal assistance is available.

Separately, a bill in the Senate would consider wildfires a natural disaster for the purposes of FEMA funding.

When Harris, a rising Democratic star, took the microphone to cheers, a man stood up and encouraged her to run for president, piercing the tension.

“It’s going to be a long road ahead,” said Harris, a former state attorney general, cautioning the crowd to be on the lookout for price gouging.

“It’s going to be overwhelming and it’s already overwhelming,” Harris said of the recovery. “But the thing that we have seen in this moment of crisis is incredible courage. … And in these coming days we’re going to have to see and do more of it. But we can’t thank you enough.”

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago